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U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Illinois' assault weapons ban

In this 2013 file photo, John Jackson, co-owner of Capitol City Arms Supply, shows off an AR-15 assault rifle for sale at his business in Springfield, Ill. Under a new state law, such weapons are banned unless their owners register the weapons with the Illinois State Police.
Seth Perlman
/
Associated Press
In this 2013 file photo, John Jackson, co-owner of Capitol City Arms Supply, shows off an AR-15 assault rifle for sale at his business in Springfield, Ill. Under a new state law, such weapons are banned unless their owners register the weapons with the Illinois State Police.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to hear a set of challenges to Illinois’ assault-weapons ban, but Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should take up the issue later, after lower courts are finished considering the controversial law.

The decision comes days ahead of the two-year anniversary of the Highland Park Fourth of July parade mass shooting, which prompted the measure.

The fight over the law will likely now continue in district courts, which had been waiting for word from the high court.

“We will definitely be back,” Hannah Hill, executive director of the National Foundation for Gun Rights, wrote on X. “We WILL outlast both the gun grabbers and the Supreme Court’s procedural reticence.”

Illinois state Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, the law’s chief sponsor, said the Supreme Court’s decision will help save “countless lives” and reduce mass shootings. But he acknowledged that “more federal trials remain, and our fight continues.”

Hill’s organization was among those that turned to the Supreme Court after a ruling last fall from the federal appeals court in Chicago. That court ruled that weapons covered by the assault-weapons ban don’t have Second Amendment protection.

Rather, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that assault weapons and high-capacity magazines “are much more like machine guns and military-grade weaponry than they are like the many different types of firearms that are used for individual self-defense.”

The appellate court cautioned that it did not set out “to rule definitively on the constitutionality of the act” and that its opinion stemmed from lower courts’ rulings on requests for preliminary injunctions against the law. The 7th Circuit oversees Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Thomas wrote Tuesday that the 7th Circuit’s decision “illustrates why this court must provide more guidance on which weapons the Second Amendment covers.”

“If the Seventh Circuit ultimately allows Illinois to ban America’s most common civilian rifle, we can — and should — review that decision once the cases reach a final judgment,” Thomas wrote. “The Court must not permit the Seventh Circuit [to] relegat[e] the Second Amendment to a second-class right.”

Tuesday’s order says Justice Samuel Alito would have heard the challenge.

Advocates for Illinois’ assault-weapons ban joined Morgan in praising the Supreme Court’s decision. John Schmidt, executive board member for the Gun Violence Prevention PAC (G-PAC) of Illinois, said the 7th Circuit’s earlier ruling “follows the long-established principle that we can limit to the military and law enforcement extremely dangerous weapons not designed or needed for civilian self-defense.”

“That correct conclusion now stands as we go forward with continued enforcement of the Illinois law,” Schmidt said.

Opponents of Illinois’ law say the 7th Circuit ruling flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s 2022 opinion in the case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which said gun regulations must be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The Supreme Court clarified its thinking on such questions in a ruling last month, though. In a case known as United States v. Rahimi, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that some lower courts had “misunderstood the methodology of our recent Second Amendment cases.”

“These precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber,” Roberts wrote.

Illinois’ law bans the sale of assault weapons and caps the purchase of magazines at 10 rounds for long guns and 15 for handguns. The law was enacted in January 2023 in response to the mass shooting at Highland Park’s 2022 Fourth of July parade that left seven people dead.

In seeking review by the Supreme Court, attorneys challenging the ban argued that “nothing will be gained” by working toward a fuller, final decision from the lower courts. They argued that it is actually “exceedingly rare” for the weapons in question to be used for unlawful purposes and that “it is ordinary handguns that are the firearm of choice of criminals.”

Meanwhile, they insisted the weapons are owned “by tens of millions of Americans across the country for lawful purposes including self-defense, hunting, and range training. It follows that banning them is ‘off the table.’ … The matter is that simple.”

Illinois attorneys stressed the preliminary nature of the appeals court’s ruling and noted that the 7th Circuit was the first appellate court to hear such a case since the 2022 Bruen ruling.

Illinois’ attorneys argued that the Thompson submachine gun was not banned by states and the federal government until the late 1920s and early 1930s, following news reports of its “criminal misuse.” They then pointed to a similar pattern with assault weapons.

“After the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, sales of these weapons increased … and mass shootings involving them became prevalent.”

Illinois’ assault weapons ban and other similar laws then followed, they said.

Jon Seidel covers federal courts for the Chicago Sun-Times.